Friday, June 15, 2018

#22b. France. The Moveable Feast.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. - Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast

For a nostalgist like me - Hemingway's time in Paris seemed the perfect life. Living a humble existence with his young wife and small son on a street near the Luxembourg Gardens. Waking up and going to the review office for a few hours, then making your way to a cafe patio to write into the late morning and in the late afternoon to the basement of the American Club to box. Getting by with doing what you loved, but still just getting by, to the point that after your bills were paid you chose between buying 'pictures' or 'books' because that's what really mattered (or so Papa would have us believe... many biographers have pointed out he was making the equivalent of $60k while living this 'humble existence' in Paris - quite enough for pictures and books and even a drink here and there). When evening came, surrounding yourself with a group of friends living the same life as you: Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. Doing it all over again the next day, only to be split up by the occasional trip to Pamplona, Milan, or Chamonix. I've followed him on some of these journeys: to the town of Burgette in Northern Spain where he brought wine skins and stored them in the Irati river while fishing for trout before the bullfights... to the plains of Amboseli, Kenya where he served as game warden and wrote True at First Light and developed his lifelong passion for safari and Africa ... but I'd never followed him to Paris - his home base throughout all of this adventure. And now here we were. 

You've probably sensed now that I have an obsession. If I had not been forced against my will to read Old Man and the Sea in 11th grade it may have even began earlier. As a high schooler I remember how dry it was. His simple straightforward writing style about a not all that interesting topic in a totally uninteresting setting was a bore to me. It wasn't until much later that I came to appreciate how all of this illuminated the ordinary things. How it made one find romance in a trout stream or an old wooded cabin. Coming to Paris marked the next and probably most significant chapter in this search for Papa H, and there were many chapters to this book by now. 

So naturally, on arriving in Paris, I tried to recreate his idyllic and romantic time here. Oh hey! Nice little patio to have a drink and enjoy people watching, sure, we'll sit down! Two hours later after bad drinks, poor service, and a mediocre hamburger (yes, hamburger), I often found myself disappointed with my little recreations. But then I managed to convince Jenn to walk far out of the way to visit Closerie de Lilas one night (she had after all dragged me to all the best known bakeries all across town). Closerie was his favorite place in Paris, where all of his first serious works began to take their shape... Up In MichiganIn Our Time, The Sun Also Rises... it kept warm in the winter and the patio was pleasant in the spring, or so he said. This was the Hemingway equivalent of Da Vinci, Edison or Michelangelo's workshop . So we went and sat down one evening on the patio. The menu had a big picture of Hemingway on the inside cover. O.K... Cheesy. But it was tastefully done and I can't say if he would have loved it or hated it. I ordered a drink that he would have liked (read: any of them) - and the nerding out was underway. I remember at some point telling Jenn that this was my version of Disney world, all the while spewing out to the poor girl all of the useless Hemingway trivia I could remember. The patio was clean and nice and well lit. They had good cheese and a very decent piano player. And that's all Hemingway would have said about that.

The rest of Paris was very much a series of boxes to be checked seeing as it was my first time in there, and there are certain things you just don't miss if you only spend one time in Paris. Versailles. Which made me so disappointed in my lawn upkeep. Even today when I trim my bushes I am never far from the thought that I would be making Louis XIV so, so disappointed  Then the Lourvre, with its people. And all the paintings I learned about in art history class. And its people. And the Mona Lisa. And the people crowding the Mona Lisa. Did you know it would probably not have been so famous had it not been stolen once? This was a fun tidbit our Scottish guide shared with us. Then there was the Champ de Mars which we visited at night. At the top of each hour after sundown the Eiffel Tower glitters with a light show which is nice especially when enjoying it with your wife and a cheap bottle of Champagne in a plastic cup. There is some magic to the place that exists only in Paris. 

While living in Las Vegas a few times I'd gone to "Paris" before work, walked to the street-scape and ordered a cafe au lait and a croissant dreaming of this day that I would be there. These mornings my illusion was normally foiled by overweight 40 something women in Viva Las Vegas shirts stumbling about  with yard margaritas, but nonetheless I enjoyed the illusion while it lasted. So after the light show and some carefully composed night time exposures with the camera (none of which turned out well)  we got in an Uber, chatted about Israeli politics with the driver and returned to the hotel.

I have to imagine that Paris has lost some of its romance and charm since the 1920's when Hemingway roamed its streets. But to quote the always wise Woody Allen.. Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - it's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present. I don't know if he believed this, as it was voiced by Paul, the pretentious know it all in his comedy Midnight in Paris, and I have to image Woody is a nostalgist himself.  But it's difficult not to be when walking those streets. How they inspired not just Hemingway but generations of writers, artists and scientists who we still benefit from today. For the rest of my life, it will stay with me, for as someone once said: it's a moveable feast.

Monday, May 28, 2018

#22. France. Day of Days

D DAY -1.  H HOUR -14

Along the Loire River southwest of Paris was the frontier of Nazi Occupied France. To the south beyond it laid Vichy France, the people there still under the thumb of the Germans, but living to a certain degree more autonomously than the rest of their countrymen subject to the German occupation following the fall of Paris in 1940. Chateaux Perreaux, built in the mid-18th century as the estate of a landowner likely soon to be stripped of his possessions during the French Revolution, was tonight where we stayed. Just north across the river from the small town of Amboise, in 1944 it served as a headquarters of sorts for German officers. They picked it likely for similar reasons as we did when looking through Trip Advisor... it was gorgeous... quaint and far from any big towns or people, but also big and opulent enough to afford all the comforts of home to men who were likely being given leave from a tour on the eastern front. It had a greenhouse, a well manicured ground, a pool (ok not sure if that was there in the 40's). I wonder how the nightmares of Stalingrad, Kursk or Smolensk must have caused those Germans so long ago trouble in finding this beautiful place so peaceful as we did. But they did not have the cheerful Francisco, the comfort of their wife, or NyQuil.

By 1944 the border of Free France and Nazi occupied France had disappeared. After the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans had poured into the south of France and divided the country into the Zone Sud and Zone Nord. On D-Day -1, H-Hour -14 as we had dinner across from the Chateaux d'amboise, this was no longer a frontier, it was in the heart of an occupied territory. 26,999 days later, both quiet Monday nights, the German officers going to bed in Chateau Perreaux as we were about to were oblivious that in only a few more hours, men of the 82nd and 101st airborne would be parachuting down on towns only 150 miles to their north, unleashing a confusion from which the Wehrmacht would never recover.

D DAY.  H HOUR - 5

That room in the top of Chateaux Perreaux was still silent. Jenn wanted to shutter the windows before bed so that we could keep out some of the light when morning came, but on account of the wine and my tiredness I couldn't figure out how to do it before bed. So at 0030 the wind blew in, the crickets chirped and the sound of the nearby stream was faintly heard from the wide open windows. Jenn was sound asleep and I woke to use the bathroom. On the way back to bed I went to the window.  The moon was in its last quarter, casting a light glow on the lawn down below from the top floor of the chateaux. And I went back to bed.

172 miles to the northwest D-Day had begun. Men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Infantry Divisions were dropping into Normandy. Had history not turned out the way it did, the landings would likely be described as a disaster. Most men missed their drop zone by dozens of miles. Meticulous plans and designated landing zones and rally points were not even closely attained in the early morning hours of June 6th. The town oSainte-Mere-Eglise was no different. Meant to be a objective and rally point for men of the 82nd airborne dropped on its outskirts, it became a landing zone itself. Its namesake church, flaming buildings and German garrison made it decidedly not an ideal spot for a defenseless paratrooper to float down on at 0140 on June 6th. More than 20 men landed in the square of the city, some like helpless pieces of kindling right down into the inferno raging in the Hairon house off the main square. But it was all underway. Soon, 13,000 paratroopers would be in Normandy


As we slept, so many years ago on that Tuesday morning a battle was beginning to rage in Normandy. While we packed, woke and had a leisurely European breakfast (croissants, coffee and a soft boiled egg) 5,000 ships were unloading over 100,000 American, British and Canadian troops onto the beaches of Normandy one hour after daybreak. We drove north, and in full nerd out mode I imagined myself driving towards the front of battle on that morning, maybe a German officer who had woken up in Chateaux Perreaux as we did having been alerted of trouble on the northern coast and had been rushing to see it. The Norman countryside passed as a green blur as we drove north past Le Mans, Alencon, and then Caen. We passed where the German Panzer divisions would have been sitting idle in reserve at H-Hour +4, totally capable of pushing the allies back into the sea, but awaiting orders from Hitler who had personally stipulated that their movements were his call alone... unfortunately for the Germans, Hitler was sound asleep at his mountain home in Berchtesgaden, his staff officers not having the heart to wake him and alert him of what they believed to be a diversionary and unimportant allied maneuver.

We approached the beach through what would be codenamed Entrance D-1, a narrow gap and in the bluffs which would be a key objective for the men landing there. Protected with barbed wire fields and mines, the Americans would be sitting ducks until they could push through to here - we passed through unopposed the opposite way and made our way down to the beach. It's was an eerie thing, stepping foot down on the sand of the beach which would become known as Omaha. Maybe not unlike walking into a reception hall the day after a wedding, or seeing Mile-High Stadium totally empty after it had been packed the night before. The quiet is all that more pronounced, when you considered what happened in this place. What an incredible history changing event that had happened on these otherwise unremarkable beaches. I was surprised by how unimposing they were in fact - and when we stood on the beach wall, I began to appreciate in a whole new way what havoc the Germans firing their MG-42's at 1,200 rounds/minute with a firing range up to 2,000 m could have had on men unloading from landing craft just 100 m away. As we walked I could imagine the drone of the landing craft, the boom of artillery landing on the beach, the endless pop-pop-pop of the MG-42's... all being braved by boys who were not even of drinking age yet. These were the boys that would establish the beach-head, push into Nazi occupied France and bring down Hitler's Germany - and thousands of them never made it off of that beach.

Their gravestones we passed in the nearby cemetery... Joseph Rafferty, Captain, 2 Ranger Battalion of Pennsylvania: June 6, 1944; David Goudey, Private First Class, 2 Ranger Battalion of New Jersey: June 6th, 1944; George Eberle, 1st Lieutenant, 502 Parachute Infantry, 101 Airborne Division of New York: June 6th 1944; Charles Mobley, Sergeant, 41st Infantry 2 Armored, of Alabama: July 10th 1944. My camera clicked and clicked as if capturing these names and re-telling their story in some obscure corner of the internet would do some small honor to their memory 74 years later. The day was May 7th, and this place was a reminder of what France would celebrate tomorrow: VE day. The day of the Nazi surrender to the Allies and the end of the war in Europe. Even though so many Americans died for this outcome, for the French it was not just the day that your son, brother or father got to come back from overseas, it was the liberation of your homeland. As we headed back to the car, I was proud of the contribution our country had made to this end, and I hoped that we would never forget it.

D DAY.  H HOUR +12

The sun had begun to set as we ended our day in Normandy in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the small town where 18 hours before on D-Day men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne had (in many cases inadvertently) landed. The town was peaceful tonight. No fires raging, no paratroopers hanging from the steeple of the church (except the dummy which still hangs there today), no panicked Germans roused from their sleep and spraying anything that moved with their Mausers. We'd picked Sainte-Mere-Eglise for its peacefulness, the big Norman church in the square built in the style that would be the inspiration for Kumler Chapel, where my wife and I had gotten married 6 years before. 12 hours after H-Hour, the town was still being contested by the scattered paratroopers and 100 man strong German garrison.  Not until the next day would reinforcements from Utah beach arrive. Tonight was going to be a long night for those Americans. But as for us, we enjoyed a beer on the patio, had some nice Thai food, and Jenn caught up on her journal at the small desk. We were in bed by 2200 in our room just off the square of the big church. At 0700 as the bells marked the hour, we were up and ready to head to Paris, leaving behind Normandy and ready for our next adventure.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

My Defining Day

the snow is falling. this is the day. i leave the front door of our apartment. the big flakes fall and against the black SUV parked in front of the building they seem so much bigger and whiter.

its so cold. the exhaust of the SUV makes a cloud. abby and I veer right and continue to walk.   you are still inside and i wonder whats going on in your mind. this is your day, our day, but your day really. i wonder how you are feeling and if all of the classes we have taken have prepared you. i wonder if the practice with the pillows and all of the things we've been told are real or will be helpful. are you scared? i am. i wonder if he will be ok. the baby who doesn't have a name maybe its benjamin or jacob or lincoln who knows but i wonder if he will be ok and i wonder if you will be ok. i think i will be ok but im nervous too. i wont tell you any of this because im strong and i think you need that.

but i walk down this hill. its not a long walk and ive done it many times with abby. we're heading to rose in not many minutes, and kelley will come soon but i wanted to make sure she had a walk first - we will leave soon to rose and be gone for a few days and your pack is ready but abby needs a walk. we will see her soon but this will be it for a while.

we open the door, go up the stairs and back into the apartment. its small and the nursery is ready. soon its going to feel a lot smaller. i wonder if the baby will cry a lot. is he going to bother our neighbors? i wonder what having a baby is going to be like. i wonder if you are scared. for his health? of the pain? of raising him? im thinking of all of these. but theres no turning back now.

we get into the car. theres a car seat in the back now. how surreal that there will be a baby in that car seat the next time we drive back into the garage of our apartment building. i hope the roads aren't bad on our way back. theyre not bad now but those snowflakes are still coming down as we drive up monaco and its actually very pretty. im glad we live close. i would not like this drive so much if it were very far, but today its pretty and today im driving with purpose and its not so far.

its funny that it feels like were checking into a hotel. the room is nice. theres a bed for you, a nice chair. a little cot for me to sleep. its a little like a hotel but with a lot more gadgets around the room and were not on vacation. you get into your gown and i snap a few pictures of you. your smile is radiant and you dont seem all that apprehensive. im surprised that you seem to be doing so well. im a little apprehensive. but i dont ever stress out about things so i wont tell you that im a little apprehensive.

your mom comes. she seems apprehensive for you. if there has to be someone apprehensive ill let it be your mom. not you and not me because you just need to relax and you seem to be. i dont remember the timelines but i remember people came and people went. i remember the nurses coming in and giving you IVs and giving you medicines. i don't remember the name, provid, or providium or potosuin, or something like that that is supposed to move things along faster. i remember your sister and talking and everyone keeping their voice down because this is a serious day. i remember the chips and the snacks that everyone brought and i remember the scotch that your dad brought but we'll have that after the baby is here.

someone had brought chinese food or was it thai and i went to the waiting room to eat some. i had the latest news so everyone wanted to talk to me but there wasnt much news except that you had taken the potosin or the provide and that things probably shouldnt take too much longer.

things started moving more quickly after the P medicine. you started to feel more uncomfortable and everyone left the room except for me and the nurse. we had talked about whether you wanted to be medicated and hadnt decided but after you started to feel uncomfortable you decided that you wanted it.

the nurse left the room and went to get the anesthesiologist but she took a long time. you started to get uncomfortable because the pain was coming so I went out and asked and they said he was on his way and i was quite forceful with the nurse even though I was trying to be kind but the pain in your face made me forceful.

finally the guy came and he had you sit up and face me and put an IV into your spine and it was a little too late because the pain was already there and i could see it in your face but you were still strong - i think you told the anesthesiologist that you loved him and he made small talk with us to take your mind off the fact that we was putting a shot in your spine. it would all be over soon.

now the doctor is here and things are serious and time is both flying by and standing still. im standing at your head but I want to know how it is coming along so I look to see but what do I know if things are coming along except that I see some things are different and that you probably do not want to see these things but that all seems normal from way all I can tell. His head now. but ill looks a little more like an alien than I would of thought and now they want me to cut his cord and what does that mean and how do I do it but I guess theyll show me.

dad bring him to the weight and height table as hes crying and hes grabbing onto my finger but this tiny little grip on my finger is the most beautiful thing ive ever felt in my life. well take his height and then ill give him to his mommy and now he will be ok. we don't know your name but we know that we are now happy. god had never given such a gift to us. so went January 4th 2017.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

My son.

How much I have dreamed my whole life to see you. And now here you are.

You dance. Your knees pop up and down to Raffi while I look on. Where did you learn to jump like this?

You cry. Somehow it makes me smile and crushes my heart all at the same time. You have figured out how to move me.

You laugh. A splash in the bathtub, food thrown on the floor for Abby. You light up a room with your innocent joy.

You stand. I have not seen it yet except in mommy's snaps and in the pool in Cabo. How courageous you have become.

One day I know you will be a man of purpose and strength. Leading your own family. Charting your own course.

But for now, when you crawl to my foot and say "up"...  one of only a few words you know... I melt... And pick you up.

Can't time be frozen?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

On Safari: The Migration

On the third morning, we left the Namiri Plain for the Saronara airstrip where we'd entered the Serengeti a few days before. We piled into the Cessna Caravan and climbed away from the plains, the yellow grasses dotted by deep green acacia trees becoming like an impressionist painting laid wide out towards the horizon. The landscape below us we came to know as one teeming with wildlife, a place that one should not stray even a few feet from the car at the risk of coming face to face with something with much larger teeth than you. But now, from a few thousand feet, it was peaceful. You could make out the shambas below which dotted the horizon, their circular shape and scattered huts making up the living unit of the Maasai who inhabited the outskirts of the national park.

The flight was a short one. In only about 30 minutes we began our descent into the Kogatende airstrip on the Kenya/Tanzania border. The plane's wheels touched down and sped along for a few hundred yards kicking up a cloud of dirt. Our new guides greeted us with wide smiles and friendly faces. After a quick stop at park headquarters to check us in while we waited in the car, we were off on our way to camp, a handful of semi-permanent tents set up near the Mara River for the migration season. As our cars rumbled down the dirt path towards camp we parted skittish groups of wildebeest. They seemed to always wait for the very last second to decide which way they'd run, and when the car was finally upon them they seemed offended and surprised that you didn't stop. It was a dance the driver seemed accustomed to and it barely slowed him down. The wildebeest seemed formidable creatures, almost like lean and quick bulls, with their sharp horns and stocky figures giving the impression of strength, but this turned out to be a complete deception. The wildebeest were creatures of extreme caution and fear. A single person walking among a herd of thousands would cause them to create a wide circular berth so as to leave a hundred yards of space on every side. These creatures we learned were the most successful of all antelopes at survival and procreation in the whole of Serengeti. Their caution to predators was evident in that we never got close enough to touch one, even though we were never far from thousands of them.

By the hundreds of thousands, these creatures venture many miles north each summer to follow the rains which ultimately provide them their food. Our goal was to follow them in this journey... and by good planning by our guides, we were not unsuccessful. We arrived in the northern Serengeti along the Mara River among a herd which reminded me of what buffalo in the old west must have been like. Up close the herd certainly made an impressive sight, but the really amazing thing as you looked out across the plains to the horizon it just became a solid brown haze until they disappeared. I'd never seen anything remotely like it. It was as if we were looking at the night sky and the wildebeest were the stars. They moved not as individuals, but as if they were one big family. If one moved, others followed. If one ran, several others became curious and alarmed. These were not individual creatures, they were all one.

During the early hours of our second day at camp, we got word that excitement was afoot on the Mara river. One of the main reasons people come to this area is to witness a 'crossing'. This is when a herd decides that the rains (and thus, food) are better on the opposite side of the Mara and to cross is the only option for survival. The guide's radio reported a large herd seemed to be contemplating this, so we raced down to the riverbank. Sure enough, a herd of thousands was standing on the shore of the Mara, obviously debating a crossing of the crocodile and hippo filled rushing waters. It would only take one brave leader to go... and after that, thousands would follow.

After waiting for several minutes and deciding this would likely not happen today, one finally went. And then all behind him. Before we knew it the entire herd was in action and thousands were making their way down into the river. What previously appeared as skittish and cowardly creatures were now jumping to their peril into a crocodile infested river to get to a better feeding ground on the other side. Ever hear that saying 'well if your friend jumped off a bridge does that mean you would too?"... absolutely, says the wildebeest.

It left an impression on me that although these creatures were so silly and awkward that they have been the most successful of all the creatures in the Serengeti in staying alive and looking after one another... What beauty they created as a unit. What calm they showed as they created a one hundred yard berth around us or a hyena. This creature knew its place and was all the better for it. The silly sounding bleat that they let out by the hundreds played over and over in my head the next few nights as we settled into camp. The survival story of this this very quick and herd-like animal also told lessons. And as night fell on the Serengeti, I listened to the sounds; the distant bleats of the sleepy wildebeest, the mesmerizing chirps of the crickets, but also the silence. The silence that I expected based on a few nights before would be interrupted with a lion's roar... but tonight this was not the case. I went to bed in peace, thinking of the wildebeest making his dash across the river... his family of thousands parting like the Red Sea as we drove down the road. Although we had not left the Serengeti, what a different world this was.